Wednesday, May 20, 2009

8.4 Faith and Evidence

In the final chapter of this book, we will step back and overview what we might call "postmodern" developments in philosophy, which aptly describe the state of thinking Western philosophy currently finds itself in. However, you will hopefully recognize at that point that you have already seen much of its impact in the other chapters. We saw a glimpse of postmodern impact way back in chapter 2, where we talked about faith and reason. There, we encountered one Christian school of thought that sees faith largely as blind, as something we can legitimately affirm with or without rational proof. For example, we came across "radical orthodoxy," a current Christian trend that is unapologetic in its affirmation of faith, believing without needing to substantiate its faith.

But we have especially seen the impact of what we might call "postmodern uncertainty" in this chapter. The chapter started with the suggestion that ancient myth was much more about expressing the mysteries of reality rather than explaining how reality worked. There we wondered if in fact scientific theories today are really a kind of "myth" as well, only much more precise than ancient ones. We use our contemporary, scientific "myths" to express in great detail the mysteries of what we call the physical world. These myths express the operations of reality so well that we have been able to use them to go to the moon and build things like computers and flat screen TVs. We may not be able to say exactly what reality itself actually is, what "things-in-themselves" are made of, as we heard Kant say at the end of the previous chapter. But our expressions of reality have worked astoundingly well in the age of science.

In the previous section, we saw the impact of postmodernism on the philosophy of science. We encountered Thomas Kuhn's analysis of how scientific revolutions take place. For him, scientific developments are not really developments, but shifts in thinking that inevitably take place because no scientific theory can adequately account for all the data. New theories inevitably arise and take over in the attempt to account for such "naughty" data. But these new paradigms are just as doomed to fail as the ones they replace. According to Kuhn, scientific revolutions have as much to do with the personalities and sociology of the people doing science as they do with anything like truth or real progress in understanding.

At this point, many Christians will want to bring in God as a Guarantor of certainty, a deus ex machina like the "god of the machine" that sometimes arrived in the nick of time in ancient plays to rescue the hero from a hopeless situation. Indeed, philosophers like René Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant did bring in God at exactly such points of uncertainty in their philosophies. Someone might want to bring in the Bible as the direct revelation that removes what would otherwise be uncertainty without the possibility of resolution. Someone else might suggest that God has given us clarity through the church.

But as we saw in chapter 4, we cannot get outside our heads to read the Bible or play out the teaching of the church apart from human reasoning and thought. And indeed, the words of the Bible themselves, as well as all the creeds and traditions of the church, were understood within the categories of their original authors and audiences. We saw this dynamic in the second part of this chapter as we looked at the way the Bible discusses creation in dialog with the paradigms of its day. In the end, whether by God's original design or as a result of human sin, all human understanding seems to involve interpretation, and interpretation would always seem to involve human paradigms and categories. [1]

As we conclude this chapter on science and faith, we would like to suggest a "critical realist myth" that 1) is full of faith, yet 2) takes adequate account of the limitations of human understanding and 3) allows us to continue to benefit from the scientific paradigm. You will remember from the end of the previous chapter that critical realism as we define it is an approach to reality that 1) affirms by faith that reality exists and that there are better and worse conceptualizations of it yet 2) recognizes that we can never get a bird's eye or God's eye view of it, that we are stuck in our heads, and that our understandings of reality inevitably take place from a limited and ultimately skewed perspective. Let's unpack those last two points.

First, apart from our affirmation of existence itself, every single thing we believe about every topic and matter involves and ultimately comes down to faith. Descartes believed that because he thought, he must exist: "I think; therefore, I am." But in actuality, his thinking only proved that whatever we might call "thought" exists. It does not prove that "I" exist nor does it prove that what I am calling "thought" is accurately or best understood as thought. My thought could be a sophisticated computer program or something I could not possibly conceptualize.

We operate in this world overwhelmingly by faith, faith that the things around us are real, faith that I am real. We cannot prove these things. Nevertheless, faith in reality works really well. "I think; therefore 'thought' exists" is all we can say with absolute certainty. Everything else involves a hefty dose of faith.

The opposite of faith is thus not reason but proof. In science, it has to do with the way we glue the evidence or data at hand together. It has to do with the way we fill in the blanks between the evidence, not to mention our basic apprehension of the evidence itself. In logic it has to do with the premises or presuppositions we assume in making an argument. Whether faith is "blind" or not depends on how much glue we have to supply to make our paradigms work and how well our assumptions fit the evidence we seem to have.

In a postmodern world, blind faith is not necessarily irrational, especially if we are up front and honest about the apparent lay of the evidence. Logic can be incoherent, and we can still call that kind of thinking "irrational." But in a world where virtually everything is a matter of faith, there is a way in which we can affirm ideas that do not seem to fit the evidence we have or that do not seem to work very well, and we can do it rationally and logically. All we need to do is be honest about it. Radical orthodoxy is thus a rational and coherent approach to Christian faith, even though it has no interest in justifying or defending itself rationally.

At the same time, we wonder what the longevity of such an approach to truth will be, beyond its initial adherents. In Christian thinking, such an approach fits well with the ideas of the most significant theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth (1886-1968). For him, the beliefs of Christianity are not based on evidence at all but purely on God's revelation. Truth is revealed, not discovered or proven. Accordingly, Barth had no interest in questions like whether it is historically likely that Jesus' tomb was empty on Easter Sunday or whether archaeology tends to support the historicity of the Bible's stories. If he were still alive, he would certainly affirm those who say that Christianity is unapologetic about its beliefs.

One potential issue with this line of thinking is that it leaves no reason to believe in Christianity. For thinkers in the Calvinist tradition, this is not a problem, because they believe God orchestrates faith anyway. The only ones who will believe are those God has chosen to believe. But for those who think God makes it possible for humans to choose or not choose Him, this approach is more problematic. Barth and the radically orthodox give the unconvinced no basis to adopt a Christian understanding. For them, it is largely irrelevant whether Christianity seems to make sense to anyone but those to whom God makes it make sense.

In the end, if the claims of Christianity are not basically reasonable, if they do not at least generally fit the data of the world, we can question what sense it makes to say that Christianity is a religion of truth. We are not suggesting that "the evidence demands a verdict" or that faith is provable--not at all. We are suggesting that it would make little sense to say that God is a God of truth if the normal thought processes that work so well to get us through life contradicted Christian faith in some substantial way. It makes little sense to get out of the way of moving traffic and then turn around and say that you would believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus even if someone could prove that they had found the bones of Jesus.

So any interpretation of the world involves 1) faith that the world exists and 2) a recognition that our interpretations of the world are exactly that, interpretations from a point of view that is not exactly God's point of view. God knows all the data of the world, and He knows it all in proper relation to all the other data of the world. By contrast, we know the smallest, infinitesimal portion of the data, and we know it in only the most partial of relationships to the other data. A little reflection on these last two sentences should be humbling to all of us, including textbook writers. How strange it is for us to think we know much of anything about anything!

At the same time, given the current lay of evidence at any given time, there would seem to be better and worse interpretations of reality. If we return to the three tests for truth we mentioned way back in the third chapter, a better interpretation is one that 1) relates well to the data we have (correspondence), 2) is logical and does not contradict itself (coherency), and 3) it works well in the "real" world, the world in which we live and operate (pragmatic). From these basic tests, we can suggest reasonable criteria for distinguishing between more and less likely interpretations of evidence, given whatever evidence we have.

First, the more data, the more evidence we have, the more certainty we can afford the hypothesis or theory. The social sciences speak of having enough data to constitute a "valid sample." You cannot really say that a certain pattern applies to millions of people if you have only seen the pattern in ten.

True, it is difficult to speak of "data-in-itself" in the first place, of evidence that does not already involve interpretation. Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous skeptic, once suggested that "there are no facts--only interpretations." [2] There does seem to be some truth to this idea. Nevertheless, by evidence we simply mean the most basic of things, like an object with a certain apparent size and shape, mass, etc. In historical research, we might be speaking of a primary text, a document that says such and such a thing in such and such a language. The Bible is also a text written in certain languages saying certain things.

Secondly, the theory that accounts for the most data in the simplest or most "elegant" way is the better hypothesis or theory. Again, it may very well be that the more complicated theory is the right one. We cannot prove it isn't, and a person can believe in a less likely theory by faith and be rational. But the more of the picture we have to draw outside the "dots" of data we have, the less likely the theory is given the evidence we have. We can consider that hypothesis a worse hypothesis on the basis of the evidence. This rule is sometimes called Occam's Razor. It is the idea that the simplest explanation for a set of evidence is the more likely explanation.

Thirdly, the rules of logic would seem to be as certain as anything we can know in the world. A theory that does not contradict itself is a better theory than one that is logically inconsistent or incoherent. The quantum world of physics has made it clear, however, that we must be careful even here. The various formulae of quantum mechanics do not fit with each other. They currently contradict each other and are not consistent with each other. In their cases, the rules of logic apply to a part of physics, but not to all of it. And thus we return to our suggestion at the beginning of the chapter than even in science we are dealing more with expressions of reality rather than explanations of the way the world actually is.

Finally, a theory or hypothesis that seems to predict what will happen or that seems to account for what did apparently happen is better than one that requires us to explain away past and future events that do not fit our theory. In short, a better theory is one that seems to work in the unfolding of events, whether past or future. The more exceptions we have to account for, the less helpful the hypothesis. And as we saw in the previous section, such "naughty data" is the stuff of paradigm shifts.

When it comes to Christian faith, then, or even interpretations of the Bible, these rules would seem to apply. We can rationally believe in things that do not seem to fit the current lay of the evidence as best we can tell. After all, all of our beliefs, except the affirmation of existence itself, require varying degrees of faith. What is more important, we think, is that we are honest with the lay of the evidence.

A Christian biologist, for example, can rationally disagree with the overwhelming majority of their colleagues on the topic of evolution. But apparently (and I write this as a layperson who is not competent to judge) it would be difficult for such a biologist to suggest reasonably that the current lay of the evidence makes his or her hypothesis a better scientific hypothesis. Given the overwhelming consensus, it would seem that such a Christian biologist should acknowledge that his or her understanding is a matter of faith. That does not in any way imply that this understanding is false. It simply says that given the data as we currently understand it, such an interpretation seems more a matter of faith than evidence.

[1] Some have of course suggested that there is such a thing as pre-verbal apprehension of reality, a kind of blunt, brute knowledge of the world as it is in itself prior to human conceptualization (e.g., Arthur Schopenhaur [1788-1860]).

[2] ref.


Anonymous said...

"One potential issue with this line of thinking is that it leaves no reason to believe in Christianity."

I think Barth might argue that one valid reason would be the experiences and/or testimonies of others. Often included in court cases but often neglected in scientific method

Glenn Knepp

Martin LaBar said...

". . . it would seem that such a Christian biologist should acknowledge that his or her understanding is a matter of faith."

A couple such biologists have done exactly that, to their credit. All too many have not.